Universal masking required at Livingston public schools

District Administrator Todd Wester and Superintendent Lynne Scalia
Monday, September 13, 2021

On Thursday, in accordance with District Policy 8301, School Safety, the Superintendent’s office at Livingston Public Schools announced the decision to resume the requirement that all students and adults wear a mask that covers the face and mouth upon entry to all school buildings, effective today. COVID-19 case rates, illness, patterns of spread, and absence rates in our schools, as well as input from families, health professionals, and the administrative team, all influenced the decision.

Since the announcement, some families have contacted us to express frustration over the mask requirement, while others are critical for not having done so sooner. We hear you and understand, and assure you that through close monitoring and thoughtful discussion we come to a very difficult, but ultimately, clear decision that we need to try universal masking again as a mitigation strategy.

Additionally, many families we hear from have told us that they understand what a challenge it is to guide a school system through a pandemic, and have thanked us for doing all we can to be responsive, reasonable, and responsible, with the safety and learning of our students always our top priority.

This won’t be easy for all, especially now, for those strongly opposed to masking. We want to continue to hear out those with concerns and to embrace them in our school community. In the days to come, we ask for patience, kindness, civility, and the understanding that we are all in this together, wanting all our children to have a safe and enjoyable learning experience.

Our only opt-out option is currently off-site instruction in the form of the Park Online Education Expedition (POEE), but we are searching for other solutions.

We and other schools and school legal experts around the state understand that an off-site option satisfies the Governor’s recent emergency rule, MAR 37-960, as it provides a viable means by which parents can opt out of the masking requirement. However, the new rule is not the primary reason we are providing an offsite option. Rather, we want to assure instructional opportunity for all. Just as we supported families who wanted a mask requirement by offering them off-site instruction when masks were optional, so will we support families who prefer not to have their children wear masks by offering an off-site option.

We have heard of no viable option for families who wish to have their students opt out of the mask requirement in school buildings. Simply put, we understand that if the potential for illness and absence is great enough that we need to impose a universal mask requirement, which we perceive it to be, then, that means that all on site really do need to be masked. In addition to rapid spread of COVID-19 in our schools since school started, one of the fundamental reasons for reinstating the requirement is the high rate of absence. By Centers for Disease Control and Park County/City Health Department protocol, if an unmasked student tests positive for COVID-19, all within 6 feet are deemed close contacts and end up in quarantine (our classrooms are not large enough to maintain 6 feet between all), whereas if all wear masks “consistently and correctly”, only those under 3 feet are deemed close contacts (we easily can maintain 3 foot distancing in schools). Thus, one COVID-19 positive individual, unmasked, ends up absent and learning off-site, but so will all who were within 6 feet for a total 15 minutes, whether they were masked or not.

So, starting today, we do require universal masking upon entry to all school buildings, and we offer education through the POEE to all those families who wish to opt out of the masking requirement, as follows:

Families who wish to opt out should keep their children home starting today and make arrangements with the school to provide instruction through POEE.

Students who arrive to school without a mask will be provided one.

We will teach students correct use of the mask, polite reminders will be given, and we know it will take a couple of days for some to get back in the habit of mask use with frequent, routine breaks.

Just as we would not permit bullying or shaming of students who mask, or staff who help implement the requirement, we will also not permit bullying or shaming of students or families who decline to comply with the mask requirement.

We will call the parents of students who decline to mask, despite requests and polite reminders, to find out if parents wish that the student mask or to make arrangements for offsite instruction to begin the following day.

We recognize and regret that off-site instruction increases the burden on families who opt out to assist their children with their learning at home. It also impacts our teachers, who must once again provide for the learning of both onsite and off-site students for a week or two until enrollment in the Park Online Education Expedition can take place, students return on-site with masks, or in the event that case rates plummet and the mask requirement can be lifted quickly. Bottom line, we feel on-site learning is optimal and really want all kids in our school buildings. We will continue to search for opt-out options to masking that both provide for on-site service to the unmasked and which protect other students and adults against illness and closecontact quarantine. If someone is successful in finding such a solution, we might not need a mask requirement at all.

We had hoped we would not need to mask.

Before school started, Superintendent Scalia shared with the community her cautious optimism that a mask requirement might not be necessary, citing one Covid-19 positive case we had seen under optional masking conditions during well-attended summer school programs. However, Dr. Scalia also said that we would closely monitor case rates and quarantine-related absence and would require universal masking if spread in schools necessitated it. In August, local public health experts cautioned us that the Delta variant would very likely spread much more rapidly, including among younger children, and urged that we not compare the way COVID acted last year to what would likely happen moving forward. Sure enough, by Friday, case rates among students in Livingston Schools hit 21, the highest rate since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Four of 5 schools are affected, with two full sections offsite because all were deemed close contacts. Fully 1/3 of individuals in one classroom tested positive within a week of the first known case.

Last year, under universal masking, we saw little to no evidence of spread among students in buildings, and little to no evidence of spread to adults from students who contracted COVID-19 at school, and no classes effectively shut down by quarantine. This year, under optional masking with the Delta variant we have seen clear evidence of such spread in schools, and whole classes in quarantine. We need to try universal masking again as a mitigation strategy. If it does not work, and illness and absence due to Delta, some other variant, or intermixing in other places around the community where there are not mask requirements shuts us down, then we will also know that universal masking only in schools and in healthcare facilities in Livingston would likely not re-open us.

If we pull together, upcoming days might go very well for all.

Our community has been excellent in working with us in the past, even when some disagreed with a decision or when it has been inconvenient to help. Last year, parents helped us transport their children to school when COVID-19 caused a bus shut-down and limited ridership. So many parents helped their children learn from home.

This year, parents who hoped we would start the year with a mask requirement and those who feared a mask requirement might be required enrolled them in the Park Online Education Expedition. Some families who have historically chosen home schooling as an option have enrolled in POEE due its high quality programs and the ability to participate in some classes and activities as desired. For those who choose to home school, the POEE is an excellent taxpayer-funded flexible accredited option.

People have been mostly courteous and have followed standard procedures for comment when urging that we require, or do not require, masks. It seems that many understand that we are doing our best under difficult circumstances to keep kids in school and safe and learning. With the continued nice weather, we are encouraging staff to hold class outdoors when practical, and to take regular outdoor mask breaks. The ultimate hope is that the masking requirement can end soon. While difficult to place a time frame on lifting the requirement that is tied to rates of infection and absence due to quarantine, we are committed to continued constant monitoring of the situation and to continued consultation with experts and families, all in hopes community and school spread drops to levels that allow us to return to seeing smiling faces in classrooms. Parents who are in a situation to be able to help us as substitutes, we need you. Please call the number below.

It is important for all to understand that teachers, school nurses, and principals have not imposed this mask requirement. They have simply been asked to help implement it. They are just as weary as everyone else in dealing with COVID. Their commitment is to politely and kindly expect students and adults to comply.

Please be kind in return, even if you disagree with the masking requirement. The District does have a uniform complaint procedure that anyone can follow if they disagree with a policy or practice. Please know that our Board of Trustees reads your communications and welcomes public comment and input at meetings. At our Tuesday regular meeting of the Board of Trustees, modifications to the current requirements might be made. Questions and comments for or against the mask requirement should be directed to the District office, 406-222-0861, or to Superintendent’s Secretary, Jenny Stringer, jenny.stringer@livingston.k12.mt.us.